Is Watchmen too confounding for its own good?

Every TV show has one episode where its core audience goes all-in, where the show goes from merely “promising” to one that fans will watch every episode of, if only for a few seasons.

That episode will differ for every single audience member, but I (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) am totally unsurprised that “She Was Killed By Space Junk” is the episode where so many of my fellow TV critic pals, regardless of whether they’ve read the comics the series is based on or not, went from guardedly optimistic about Watchmen to all in on Watchmen. After two episodes featuring only slight ties to the world of the Watchmen comic, “Space Junk” brings in Laurie Blake, as played by the wonderful Jean Smart, and the episode goes for it, unveiling a significant portion of the series’ larger picture.

“Space Junk” also unveils the ways in which Watchmen connects to creator Damon Lindelof’s prior work. Co-written with The Leftovers veteran Lila Byock, the episode wouldn’t have felt out of place on that earlier series, with its relentless, single-minded focus on the character of Laurie and what she goes through as she begins investigating the weirdness in Tulsa. It’s also at least somewhat interested in the idea of God’s indifference to our plight — in the figure of Doctor Manhattan, who has godlike powers but started out as just another guy (and who was once Laurie’s lover).

I loved this episode wholeheartedly, and it’s a good example of where the show is headed in the weeks to come. But did other folks feel the same? That’s what I wanted to ask associate culture editor Allegra Frank and film critic Alissa Wilkinson. Our conversation follows!

Is “She Was Killed By Space Junk” pleasantly confusing or confounding in its confusion?


Phone booths allow humans to make petitions of Doctor Manhattan.

Laurie prepares to call Doctor Manhattan.
HBO

Emily: For me, “She Was Killed By Space Junk” snapped Watchmen into focus with that scene in the crypt between Jean Smart and Regina King, a scene that perfectly established a relationship that will hopefully carry the show going forward. Smart and King have such an instantly prickly chemistry that putting them onscreen together gives the show a whole new set of tools to work with.

Did you have similar reactions to the episode? Or did “Space Junk” feel like just another episode of Watchmen?

Alissa: I’ll be honest — I’m still wrapping my head around this whole show and its world, creating a mental landscape and peopling it. That’s not a bad thing; I like some mystery. But for whatever reason, the way I process TV shows isn’t conducive to understanding them well the first time around. So I am scrambling to pull its elements into an order that will help me piece together what it’s doing.

What did feel interesting to me (and, as you said, reminiscent of The Leftovers, a show I love) is the way the episode was framed with Laurie’s joke, which I quickly realized was not wholly a fictional tale within the universe of Watchmen; it concerns real history within that world.

I’m coming into the show without having read the original Watchmen comic, but this episode confirmed for me who some of its big characters are, since the show apparently exists in a world where some of the events from the comic did happen, just decades ago. So Laurie’s referring to real events, but frames them as a desperate joke she’s telling via satellite link to one of the characters mentioned in the joke, who happens to be her former lover, who is godlike, and living on Mars.

That history thing is what’s interesting to me about “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” and gives me something to grab onto going forward. Because the choice to not adapt the Watchmen comic directly, or set it in the past, is a bold one — but if the point is that the past haunts us in the present and functions as its own kind of trauma, then I’m very much on board. (Another Leftovers theme: The past is never past.)

That’s also in keeping with the TV show’s overt exploration of race, and the “Redfordations” element. Arguments about reparations in our world often seem to question whether it’s “fair” to allow the past to have material significance in the present. But of course, the past already has material significance in the present, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. Is it possible Watchmen is trying to explore that theme in more ways than one?

Also I totally thought Jeremy Irons had put that guy into scuba gear, and I was hella confused.

Allegra: Alissa, I’m so glad to have another Watchmen universe newcomer join our conversation this week, to confirm I’m not alone in feeling lost, especially regarding this episode.

I am generally averse to re-watching movies or TV shows solely in the interest of clarity, and to instead rely on my first impression as “true,” letting it dictate my understanding of the work in question. But while watching “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” I felt like I was inside of some utterly inscrutable dream, one that had next-to-no relationship to the show I thought I was watching. Of the three episodes of Watchmen we’ve seen so far, this was the one most closely informed by the comic, as you both have stated; the significance of Laurie Blake’s debut was lost on me for that reason. Instead, I asked: Who is this new pair in charge of the Judd Crawford case? Where is Angela? How will the events of this episode dovetail with her story? What is the punchline to this weird “joke”?

I didn’t feel like any of these questions were answered in a way that left me satisfied on my first viewing. So, against my regular inclinations not to, I watched the episode again. The second time around — and admittedly, I read both of your thoughts before diving back in — I got it. Not just because I was better versed in the allusions to the Watchmen comic and the elements establishing Laurie’s plot as directly related to the comic, but also because I was more game to let Laurie take the lead, to redirect us from the strangeness of last week’s surprise UFO ending to something comparatively more procedural. Once I started seeing her as a smart, brassy FBI agent instead of questioning how ancillary she was to Angela’s story, Laurie was more than okay in my book. I learned to love her.

How long did it take you both to adjust to the shift in perspectives, to Watchmen’s reduction of Angela to a more secondary character by giving the story over to Laurie after Angela had proven to be such an engaging protagonist?

Emily: TV shows like Watchmen — where viewers are frequently confused as to what’s going on — often struggle to find ways to let the audience know that it’s okay to be confused. That’s the intent. You’re supposed to feel a little lost in the fog. I personally think “Space Junk” handles this beautifully, but it’s clear from both of your concern that you might be missing something that it didn’t quite hit the same way for you.

What I want to make clear is that what happens in “Space Junk” is slightly more understandable for people who’ve read the Watchmen comic, but only slightly. We know what happened to Laurie Blake in the 1980s; everything that’s happened since is less clear. So when she gets on the phone to send a message to Doctor Manhattan — and is seemingly answered by Angela’s car plummeting from the sky right in front of her — whatever has happened between the two since the dude absconded for Mars in the comic is this immense blank to fill in.

I think one of the things that has been tough for people who’ve never read Watchmen to grasp is that this TV series isn’t really an adaptation but extremely well-done fanfiction. I want to be careful with that term, because I know some people will read it derisively, but I mean it with intense respect and affection. Lindelof and his team have done the work of imagining what would have happened between the events of the comic and now, and though everything we’ve learned about that period has so far come mostly through world-building, the introduction of Laurie indicates that we’re going to check in with the characters who are still around, too.

But at the same time, I’m a little surprised you found this episode even somewhat impenetrable. It’s a cop drama, with a take-no-prisoners lead character who has a giant blue dildo and a young fanboy toady who worships her. (She sleeps with him, which I, for one, having seen so many movies and TV shows where older men hook up with much younger women, found welcome.) And she’s played by Jean Smart, who is one of those actors who commands the screen no matter what she’s doing.

As we saw on both Lost and The Leftovers, Lindelof is particularly skilled at gradually pulling back to reveal that the story you’re following takes place in a bigger context. So even though we’ve been hyper-focused on Angela and her investigation up to this point, “Space Junk” suggests said investigation has larger implications for the world of Watchmen in general, at least if the FBI is getting involved.

Was it a smart strategy to zoom out like this in episode three? I would argue yes. In a slightly longer season — 13 episodes, say, instead of Watchmen’s nine — I could see a case for waiting until episode six to shift focus. But Watchmen doesn’t really have enough real estate to wait. And, as I said, the scene in the crypt — where Laurie tells Angela that she “eats good guys for breakfast” and Angela laughs sarcastically — did a great job of expanding the series’ thematic ground in subtle ways. Whatever we think we know, we don’t know it. “She Was Killed By Space Junk” made me feel comfortable in my confusion; maybe it didn’t work as well for you.

Alissa, I wanted to hear what you thought about this episode because it has a lot of interesting notions about Doctor Manhattan as a proxy for God. You’ve written a lot about the intersection of faith and pop culture before. What’s your take on that element of Watchmen?

On Doctor Manhattan, God, and all points in between


Jeremy Irons is playing Adrian Veidt.

The identity of Jeremy Irons’s character is revealed in this episode.
HBO

Alissa: First, there’s one last thing I want to say about “confusing” shows: As I said above, I like mystery! But I do worry that I’ll assume I’m not supposed to really understand anything, and then I’ll fail to make some important connection between events because I didn’t realize there was one. (This has happened to me before.) Alas, that’s probably some kind of metaphor for life, and I do not care to explore it further.

You know me well. I grew up in a religious tradition (conservative evangelical Christianity) in which I believed both that God was loving and personal, and also quite stern. That perception of God understands God to be an all-powerful being who cares about sparrows and can sway the course of human history for certain individuals’ benefit, but also sometimes gets frustrated with them and wipes them out with, say, a flood. (Before you email me to set me straight: I know this isn’t the actual orthodox theology of God or the flood, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the impression you get either.)

In any case, that’s probably why I’m interested in storytellers who want to game out the idea of another notion of God — a distant or even absent God, one who totally exists but doesn’t give a hoot about humans, because they’re too lousy and horrible to be worth saving. That’s the version that I feel like I’m seeing, via Doctor Manhattan, in Watchmen. (That Laurie’s story has an actual God in it might be notable, but I chalked that up to the structure of the joke.)

That’s one of the big questions The Leftovers also examined: In the face of tragedy and loss, if God does exist, does that mean God is just mean and petulant and bad and capricious? Or is there some bigger plan? And how can you find out for sure?

I’m not sure where Watchmen is going with all of that, but I’m definitely fascinated by the question of how human justice can operate, if it can operate at all, in a world where the most powerful being has kind of given up and gone to live on Mars. (It does strike me as morbidly funny whenever someone mentions, with perfect conviction, that that’s where Doctor Manhattan is. Oh, right, he just lives on Mars, obviously.) If there’s a conflict brewing between the not-so-innocent police, the racist and overtly tribalistic “Seventh Kavalry,” and the masked vigilantes — whom some think are spoiled rich people with inferiority complexes and others think are heroes — but they’ve all been left in disgust, then can any of them really be right? And who decides?

That’s where I’m at. How about you, Allegra?

Allegra: I love that the Doctor Manhattan element is so appealing to you, Alissa, despite your lack of familiarity with the comics. I can understand the fascination of the omnipresence of this God figure looming over Earth, all the way from Mars, And the references to the greater Watchmen mythos are interesting to me as well — but perhaps more for that reason you mentioned of the “morbid” humor of, hey, this dude lives on Mars, because he thinks humans are a lost cause, y’all.

It’s the strange humor of the show that is gripping me most consistently. I’m also really stricken by a part of the series that culls from the comics — one of the parts that likely contributes to Emily’s description of the show as “fanfiction.” Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt is an absolute delight, a very strange, sadistic, and yet elegant old man whom I both fear and love to watch.

With this week’s confirmation that he is Veidt, as many believed him to be, I am better able to fit him into the larger narrative. I love his servants, even if I hate to see them take his murderous abuse. But I have to be honest here and say it was so fun to watch him freeze them to death this time around, a literal flip from last week’s birthday party immolation stunt. He is unhinged, unpredictable, and exists in the only part of this world that has any joy to it. Even if that joy is rooted in some really terrible acts.

And Laurie Blake’s arrival on the show, which pushed us into the territory of the Watchmen comic even further, also helped explain why Veidt is on the show at all — he’s Ozymandias, a guy whose name Blake is clearly not happy to hear. (I loved the conversation she had with the young agent who thinks of her as a “famous person” in that regard, because she knew Veidt and Doctor Manhattan in the old days.) Even if it’s taking me much longer to connect the dots than people who’ve read the comics, Veidt’s disturbed antics are touching my blackest of nerves to help me have a good time doing it.

Emily: I’m so glad that Veidt hasn’t been a huge turnoff for you! I find the wackadoodle Looney Tunes energy of his scenes so much fun that they carry me through all of the abuse he heaps upon his many cloned servants (that’s Sleepy Hollow’s Tom Mison as the dude, by the way, something that took me far too long to realize).

I think what I find so reassuring about “She Was Killed By Space Junk” is that it let me know that there is a larger picture in play here. Watchmen is going to go beyond Angela’s investigation to touch on something Big. What that is we can’t say yet — and honestly I still can’t say after having watched ahead a little bit — but this episode unfurls with the confidence of a magician who insists there’s more here than meets the eye. I’ve bought in. Have you?